Jutting from southeastern Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula is home to some of the most intriguing dishes in the country's cuisine.
Cooking Yucatecan food means building layers of flavor based on ancient indigenous ingredients, such as corn, beans, squash and chili, with added European, Caribbean and even Middle Eastern tastes and techniques.
Here, in the land of the Maya people, whose food and culture still dominate the peninsula, you will create surprising fusions, such as queso relleno. To make the stuffing for this ball of Dutch Edam cheese, you season meat with a combination of native tomatoes and the classic Spanish-Moorish mix of olives, almonds, capers and spices. You can sign up for one of the well-known schools, like Los Dos in the state capital, Merida, or take more informal classes at one of Yucatan's beach resorts.
Among the dishes you will undoubtedly make is cochinita pibil, or slow roasted meat, named for the technique of cooking meat in a pib, or underground oven. For this, you will make marinades using chili paste and bitter Seville orange juice. Toasted and ground pumpkin seeds are the key to other local dishes, including papadzules — stuffed tortillas bathed in a pumpkin-seed sauce. You will also learn to make dough for Yucatecan tamales, flavored with the bitter herb chaya and wrapped in banana leaves. To round things off, local tropical fruits and native chocolate will be the basis for desserts.
When to go: Late fall and winter are best, since the summer is hot and humid.
Planning: Beach lovers can take classes in Playa del Carment, Cancun or Cozumel and history buffs can combine classes with visits to Maya pyramids and colonial churches, Spanish-language schools in Yucatan often offer the option of taking regional cookery lessons. Most classes include visits to local markets.
Websites: www.los-dos.com, www.cactuslanguage.com, www.isis.com, www.cookforfun.shawguides.com
Pastes for Every Dish
Fragrant seasoning pastes called recados are characteristic of Yucatecan cooking. Most often used to season meat and poultry, they consist of a variety of spices, usually ground with garlic and vinegar or bitter orange juice.
Recado colorado is a bright red-orange paste, also known as achiote paste, which comes from the seeds, called achiote or annatto seeds, of the bixa orellana tree. The seeds are combined with cumin, cloves, coriander, allspice and oregano to make a marinade for chicken or other meat cooked pibil-style, wrapped in banana leaves.
Chilmole or relieno negro is made from toasted ancho chilies, which are ground with black pepper and aromatic spices to make a dark paste. The mix is diluted with turkey broth and served with turkey, especially around the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Recado para bistec is used, as its name suggests, to season beef. Cinnamon and oregano are two of its signature flavors. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the msot famous dishes made with this sauce is a chicken dish, pollo Valladolid. For this, chicken is first cooked with onion, spices and chili, then rubbed with the recado and roasted or grilled.